What Is Spelunking?

Spelunking by https://www.flickr.com/photos/rohitjiitk/2516153777/
Spelunking Photo by Rohitjiitk

Editiors Note: Spelunking like all activities require that you think about safety when trying something new. We encourage you to explore new activities but please do your research and be safe!

Campmor does not endorse or recommend unsafe activities and is not responsible for any injuries related to activities discussed on this website.

Spelunking (also known as caving) is the recreational exploration of caves. The difficulty level and danger, not unlike hiking or rock climbing, varies widely.

On one end of the spectrum, there are certainly family-friendly caves that can be walked through leisurely, or even on a guided tour, using a paved path. On the other end, there are caves that can require rappelling down tens or even hundreds of feet.

The challenges involved with spelunking, that can arise at any level of difficulty, can often include negotiating steep ascents or descents (know as pitches), tight spaces (known as squeezes) and even the possibility of cave diving. It is important to note though that while cave diving CAN be experienced during a spelunking trip, it is typically considered to be a separate activity that is far more dangerous.

Where People Spelunk

Across the Unites States alone, there are thousands of caves that can be explored.

While there are resources available online that outline guided tours, such as Cavern.com, and closed networks of spelunkers offering insights and experiences such as Caves.org, the best way to find caves to explore, that are suitable for your experience level is to do a Google search for caves in your area, and use guides created by reputable national publications and organizations that have done the research.

That said, if you are looking for a simple list of caves available for spelunking and/or hiking, Wikipedia has a nice offering that is broken down by state.

What Basic Gear Do You Need to go Spelunking?

No matter the difficulty of the cave you plan to explore, or your experience level, there is a list of gear commonly used in spelunking that you should consider:

  • Hard Hat / Helmet – This item is the key to your safety when spelunking. Not only are you surrounded by rock and often in tight spaces where you can’t see the rocks jutting out in every direction, but the hard hat/ helmet will protect you from the possibility of a falling rock.
  • Light – When you are deep in a cave, you will be engulfed in complete darkness without the use of an artificial light source. A sufficient light source is critical to your safety. A great option to shine light on the path ahead (or the cave surrounding you) is a simple headlamp, which can strap onto your helmet, allowing you to remain hands free, while you explore.
  • Shoes with Tread – No matter the type of shoe or boot you wear when spelunking, you will be susceptible to slipping due to slippery and often damp rocks. That said, it is always good to plan ahead and think proactively by wearing shoes that have a good tread on them. in order to reduce your chances for injury.
  • Map of Cave (if possible) – If you’d like help navigating the cave you are exploring, a map can be a great way to allow you to explore as you please, with the safety of knowing you can find your way out, should you get lost. This, of course, is totally up to you, depending on how difficult you would like your next cave exploration trip to be.
  • Hiking Partner – For any spelunker, even at the more experienced level, it is very important to have a partner with you when spelunking. There are a lot of unknowns that can occur when exploring a cave, including your light source going out, getting stuck in a tight space or losing your sense of direction, It is always better to have a partner with you to help out when needed.
  • First Aid Kit – A simple first aid kit is always a great item to pack when spelunking. Because of the nature of many of the rocks within the cave (sharp edges in tight spaces) there is always a possibility of injury. It’s always better to be prepared than to be left without the means to administer first aid.

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  • Old_Dog1

    This can be a very dangerous sport, and is very unforgiving of mistakes. If you know absolutely nothing about cave exploration, begin by visiting a state or national park such as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky or by going to a commercial cave. Then, find a local group to learn from. If you’re not sure how to find one, look up the National Speleological Society on line and find a caving group, called a Grotto, near you.

  • Kassia Thormählen

    Ok, I am REALLY sorry for whom ever took the time to write this but I am going to have to respectfully, as an experienced caver, disagree! 1. Cave diving is NEVER encountered on a trip and if it is turn around! It takes years of diving experience and an EXTREMELY high skill level to even think about doing it. You did state it correctly that it is a dangerous activity but the thing you missed is that it is so dangerous that cave divers actually carry goodbye letters on them because of the risk level. 2. You never mentioned in the light source having backup batteries or even a second headlamp….I’m sorry but caves are dark, cold and most of the time confusing as all heck! The last thing you want to do is be in a cave and have your light go out. They are not often explored and it could be weeks till someone goes in. 3. Map of cave (if possible)?!?!?! Please tell me that is just a joke to make us cavers laugh. You NEVER go into a cave without a map (unless you are on an expedition trip to push new leads, but even them they will have a map of the rest of the place). Any cave I have ever been into has been a maze and is very confusing. With all the squeezes and turns people are sure to get lost. Especially if you have never been there before! 4. Please do not google or wiki caves to go into! MOST caves are on private property! A lot of caves now a days are getting closed by the DNR because people are not getting the correct permits and landowners are tired of people trespassing. The last thing us cavers need is random people getting questioned and saying, “But google told me to come here”. On a side note, hunting season in coming up and if you wonder onto property used to hunt you won’t even make it to the cave. 5. Having a partner is yes, extremely important, but what is more important is having a FEW! If someone in the cave falls and gets hurt you always want to have a least one person to be able to go for help and another to stay and administer first aide. So three at a minimum. 6. You never even mentioned cave conservancy. People who wander into caves touch things and destroy millions of years of beauty. All over there are many trips to clean up caves that random people have destroyed!!!! 7. Are you even aware of a disease going through caves and killing off the bat population? It’s called WNS and when people wear dirty clothes into caves they spread the disease and infect uninfected caves.
    Again, I am very sorry to rip apart your posting but cavers already have enough problem with people getting caves closed. If anyone is serious about TRYING caving they should contact a local grotto and get involved in a beginner caving trip. They all have them, they all do them and grottos are EVERYWHERE! Just ask, they are more then happy to help you get in and out of a cave safely and properly.
    ~Kassia

    • Carolyn

      Thank you Kassia for such an informed response. I have been spelunking once. It was with a group and when I described the cave, my friends laughed and said it was a 5-star cave. In the main sleeping area, it had lights (though limited), bathrooms, limited running water, tables, and a big chandelier hanging in the main dining area. It was obviously a commercial caving experience. I loved it. They provided the hard hats and headlamps, as well as safety tips and guides for our exploration. They even at one point of our exploration, had us turn off our headlamps and gave us a colored light show. I am sure this is not for the real spelunkers, but it was fine for this guarded, adventurous person. I learned a lot from your post, and would advise anyone who is considering it for the first time, to take
      your advice to heart. Carolyn

    • Kassia, Excellent response to a very vague and possibly dangerous article about caving. As I was reading the article I noted all the important omissions that could get some inexperienced people in big trouble plus endanger the cave or life within it. Thanks for your response to the article. You may have saved someone’s life…. Jim

  • donjacob

    Back when I was writing “Caving” (publ 1986), Spelunking was in the “Top 10 Most Dangerous Sport Activities.” Caving can kill you. Old_Dog1 and Kassia are so correct. NEVER CAVE DIVE!!!!! Even the most experienced cave diver can get disoriented, run out of air and die!

    Grottos are groups of folks who do have “mud in their blood.” They also are experienced old hands who will help a newbie gear up. Not only that, but you need to know that caving punishes your gear. Water, grit, mud, sharp edges cut, scrape, degrade equipment. Your fellow cavers will remind you and show you what to look for.

    All that said…cavers experience a new, beautiful, exciting world that most of us never see or enjoy. I remember sitting on a ledge during a huge caving gathering in Missouri with thousands and thousands of bats leaving the cave for their nightly foray into the fields. The breeze and sound was astounding, unearthly and unique. Get into a group, take a trip.

  • Scott

    It’s caving, not spelunking…

  • Mike Bilbo

    I don’t know where the writer has been but the term “spelunking” was abandoned a long time ago for the term “caving.” The value in that, however, is that whenever I hear someone talking about spelunking, I know they likely do not have any experience in the activity and that sets the stage for getting them properly educated and safety-oriented,

    • Allen Smith

      I don’t know of any cave diver who carries a “goodbye letter.”
      Cave diving without extensive training is suicidal. Cave diving becomes reasonably safe after 2 weeks of intensive training. Even with proper training, one must obey the “rules of safe cave diving” at ALL times.

    • Another Kevin

      I’ve seen a bumper sticker, “Cavers rescue spelunkers.”

  • caver friend

    I would like to say that caving is a very difficult sport and if you are not correctly prepared things can go very wrong very fast. I would like to add to the blog some other things to think about.
    Helmet – this needs to have a chin strap so that it does not fall off your head if you fall down. seen it happen more than once.
    Light – extra batteries are not enough. There should be three sources of light for each caver and they should be able to be mounted on a helmet. You need your hands free to cave.
    Shoes with Tread – You also need ankle support. Please do not go caving in five fingers this is just asking to have your toe crushed.
    Map – I will skip this as someone else already said that a cave map is not like reading a surface map at all.
    Hiking partner – when you are caving you really need to have three people at the least. Also leave detailed location with someone and were you are going and how long you plan to be there and what the objective is, if your plans change let them know. If you do not report back then someone can notify the right people to start to look for you.

    Getting the proper training will help. Along with that for those of you who stay with caving get some rescue training from qualified personal. The ambulance can not come to you in the cave.